While watching Creed II, I found myself wondering what the subtext of the movie might be. By the third act, I realized there was none there, but I found myself getting energized in spite of myself. In a rare feat, the last act of Creed II is such a joyous celebration of the form.
Sequels are ubiquitous in modern-day Hollywood, as they were in the old days of Hollywood as well. Likewise, franchises are not inherently new, either. The number one question that every screenwriter and director must ask themselves when making a sequel or another installment of a franchise is not, should not be, “How much homework should we give the audience?” The question should be, “Why?”
It is a question that Creed II never quite answers. Let me be clear, Creed II is not a bad movie. It is, however, a shallow one. Directed by Steven Caple, Jr much of the movie’s themes and story are surface level male bravado chest thumping.
Three years after Adonis Creed’s (Michael B. Jordan) loss in the first Creed we see him win the Heavyweight Champion of the World. An entire journey has taken place, off-screen. Adonis and Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) continue to have a tender father/son/mentor relationship and Rocky seems to be in remission from his bout with cancer.
After the fight, Adonis proposes to Bianca (Tessa Thompson). It’s a sweet scene because it’s rooted in a bit of reality. If you remember, Bianca is hard of hearing. She has just gotten out of the shower, her hearing aids out, and Adonis, taking a cue from Rocky’s advice, pours his heart out to her. He is unaware that she can’t hear him because she has her back to him. On his knees, with a ring in his hand, Bianca screams when she turns around and sees him and slams the door.
Caple has a way with his actors that comes across almost immediately scenes like this. Bianca, now with her hearing aids in, asks Adonis to repeat himself. Caple and his cameraman, Kramer Morgenthau, frame the scene by having the two express themselves from opposite sides of a closed door. An old trick, but effective none the less.
The key in a scene likes this lies in the editing. Curiously the editing is credited to a team of three people, Dana E. Glauberman, Saira Haider, and Paul Harb. This could go a little way into explaining the odd changes in the rhythm of Creed II. Though in the movie’s defense the pacing of the movie is almost always consistent with what is going on on the screen. But I found my mind wandering as Creed II began to sag towards the middle.
Much of the first act deals with Adonis and Bianca’s preparing to get married and his satiated ego. The two decide to move to LA for Bianca’s music career and so set about packing. The scenes between Jordan and Thompson are captivating if only because screen couples like them are exceedingly rare. They compliment each other, you can see what the other sees in them, and they are the voice of reason that the other listens to.
But Adonis cannot by screenwriting law be happy for too long. Or else what would be the point of a sequel? Enter Ivan (Dolph Lundgren) and Viktor (Florian Munteanu) Drago. Ivan Drago, for those who may not know, killed Apollo Creed in Rocky IV. Rocky avenged Apollo’s death as well as defeating Russia and communism. It was the eighties, you had to be there.
A promoter, Buddy Marcelle (Russell Thornsby) announces days after Creed’s title bout, that Viktor is looking to settle old scores. While at a club watching Bianca perform, Adonis is approached by Buddy. Adonis resents being blindsided but not as much as having his father used as an excuse for a grudge match. Buddy defends his tactics, “You think the ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ just happened? Someone forced that into being.”
Lundgren is more infamous than famous. Unlike Stallone, he is not as well known and his movies are not loved in the same way. But Lundgren has a nice solid granite face perfect for the type of emoting Creed II is looking for. Not to mention he is allowed to give a backstory and pathos to a character who was essentially a giant plot device.
Old and grizzled he trains his son Viktor into being more machine than man. Ivan’s wife left after Rocky beat him. Russia abandoned him as well. Everything vanished after that pivotal moment. He wants revenge but he also wants his wife, his country, he wants his life back. A life he hasn’t had in some thirty years.
Munteanu is a beast of muscle and sinew and looks every bit the son of Lundgren. Creed II allows for us to see Ivan and Viktor outside the ring. In many ways, the Rocky/Adonis relationship is put aside to focus on Ivan and Viktor’s. A smart thing because it feels as if Rocky and Adonis have run out of things to say to each other.
Viktor and Adonis fight twice. The first fight is the fight that has Adonis get beaten almost to death. After all, you can’t have a hero overcome if he doesn’t have anything to overcome. Viktor is perhaps too zealous and he throws an extra punch disqualifying the match.
Bianca becomes pregnant and Adonis must repair himself, both physically and emotionally. Rocky, of course, will help him and the four men will meet together in the ring for one last time. What you see is what you get with Creed II and it’s kind of disappointing.
The script by Juel Taylor and Stallone feels thin and protracted. While I found myself engaged with the Drago’s story, I also found myself oddly removed from Creed’s. Creed II seems to struggle to come up with any kind of emotion to mine despite the fact that having the son fight the son of the man who killed his father would be more than enough.
But Creed II tiptoes around that. Apollo’s death is talked about but little of said about the fact that Ivan killed a man. Lundgren and Stallone have a wonderful scene together, early on, in Rocky’s restaurant. It’s a quiet tense scene with each actor proving they have more depth than often criticized. Lundgren, in particular, gives us a glimpse of an actor capable of much more than the action roles he is known for.
Sadly, much of Creed II concerns itself with Adonis trying to prove his manhood. I love macho grandstanding melodrama as much as the next guy, witness my love for Warrior or even the first Creed. But Taylor and Stallone’s script feels shallow as if the plot wasn’t meant to be the plot and instead got shoved in for lack of a better idea.
Caple finds ways around this though. As mentioned before the Bianca and Creed relationship is a lynchpin of Creed II. Bianca even gets pregnant which forces Adonis to reevaluate his goals. In one shot Caple has Morgenthau, frame the two in near darkness. Bianca is in the bedroom while Adonis is in the bathroom on the right side of the screen. The two separated by a wall, both in darkness. A visual representation of the emotional state of their relationship.
It’s moments like these where Caple shows his visual strength. Unfortunately, he’s hampered by the threadbare script. The drama in it is good, but not enough to sustain the runtime. We are treated to long bouts of Adonis stalling the rematch because he is afraid. The problem is they are the same scenes over and over.
Adonis and Bianca’s baby is born deaf causing Adonis to wonder how he will deal with her. Rocky, rightfully, lectures Adonis on his idiocy. Seeing the error in his thinking, he embraces his daughter with loving and open arms.
Since Creed II is an extension of the Rocky franchise we are treated to a training montage before the second fight. It’s about at this point where something clicks. I don’t know what it is but all I know is that I found myself nodding off a bit during the middle of Creed II. But once that training montage hits, heck, once the third act gets going, Creed II became a cinematic event.
In my review of First Man, I talked about how the scene where we saw the launching of Apollo 11 was pure cinema. Now picture that same mastery of craft stretched out for some thirty or forty minutes and you’ll have some idea of what it’s like to watch the last act of Creed II.
Once inside the ring for the final fight, Caple, Morgenthau, Ludwig Goransson, the composer, and the trio of editors combine their talents and commence a cinematic assault of sound, editing, acting, and camera work, the likes that it feels as if we’ve witnessed a massive rocket taking off into space. It is electrifying. All the threads, no matter how brittle and thin, come together. Every actor plays a part in the culminating elation of this gloriously framed and choreographed dance of violence mixed with ballet.
Creed II switches from a bland sequel with highlights of sometimes interesting heartfelt moments between characters into a magnificent sensory overload of a spectacle. Even better the climax of the fight was a pleasant and satisfying surprise. For a movie that appears to have been phoning it at times the ending of Creed II is a rapturous experience.
Yes, Creed II at times feels as if it’s reaching for a reason for the fight between Viktor and Adonis to happen. Parts of the movie drag and the notion that Adonis lost the fight because he had the wrong motive is a genre staple that feels as if even the makers of Creed II find it suspect.
I can’t help but think of that line from Adaptation, “The last act makes a film. Wow them in the end, you’ve got a hit. You can have flaws, problems, or whatever. But wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit.” Turns out he’s not wrong.